Callistus, a Roman, was head of the Church while Antonius Heliogabalus was emperor. He fixed the four periods of the year for the Ember days, on which the custom of fasting, handed down by tradition from the Apostolic times, was to be observed by all. He built the Basilica of St Mary across the Tiber. Because he enlarged the old cemetery on the Appian Way, where many holy priests and martyrs were buried, it is now called the cemetery of St Callistus. He reigned for five years one month and twelve days. After long starvation and many scourging he was thrown headforemost into a well, and so won the crow of martyrdom under the emperor Alexander. His body was buried in the cemetery of Calepodius in the Aurelian Way at the third milestone from the city, on October 14. Later it was placed under the high altar of the Basilica of St. Mary across the Tiber, where it is venerated with great honor. 1960 Breviary
“Martyr, died c. 223. His contemporary, Julius Africanus, gives the date of his accession as the first (or second?) year of Elagabalus, i.e., 218 or 219. Eusebius and the Liberian catalogue agree in giving him five years of episcopate. His Acts are spurious, but he is the earliest pope found the fourth-century “Depositio Martirum”, and this is good evidence that he was really a martyr, although he lived in a time of peace under Alexander Severus, whose mother was a Christian. We learn from the “Historiae Augustae” that a spot on which he had built an oratory was claimed by the tavern-keepers, popinarii, but the emperor decided that the worship of any god was better than a tavern. This is said to have been the origin of Sta. Maria in Trastevere, which was built, according to the Liberian catalogue, by Pope Julius, . In fact the Church of St. Callistus is close by, containing a well into which legend says his body was thrown, and this is probably the church he built, rather than the more famous basilica. He was buried in the cemetery of Calepodius on the Aurelian Way, and his anniversary is given by the “Depositio Martirum” (Callisti in viâ Aureliâ miliario III) and by the subsequent martyrologies on 14 October, on which day his feast is still kept. His relics were translated in the ninth century to Sta. Maria in Trastevere.
Our chief knowledge of this pope is from his bitter enemies, Tertullian and the antipope who wrote the “Philosophumena”, no doubt Hippolytus. Their calumnies are probably based on facts. According to the “Philosophumena” (c. ix) Callistus was the slave of Carpophorus, a Christian of the household of Caesar. His master entrusted large sums of money to Callistus, with which he started a bank in which brethren and widows lodged money, all of which Callistus lost. He took to flight. Carpophorus followed him to Portus, where Callistus had embarked on a ship. Seeing his master approach in a boat, the slave jumped into the sea, but was prevented from drowning himself, dragged ashore, and consigned to the punishment reserved for slaves, the pistrinum, or hand-mill. The brethren, believing that he still had money in his name, begged that he might be released. But he had nothing, so he again courted death by insulting the Jews at their synagogue. The Jews haled him before the prefect Fuscianus. Carpophorus declared that Callistus was not to be looked upon as a Christian, but he was thought to be trying to save his slave, and Callistus was sent to the mines in Sardinia. Some time after this, Marcia, the mistress of Commodus, sent for Pope Victor and asked if there were any martyrs in Sardinia. He gave her the list, without including Callistus. Marcia sent a eunuch who was a priest (or “old man”) to release the prisoners. Callistus fell at his feet, and persuaded him to take him also. Victor was annoyed; but being a compassionate man, he kept silence. However, he sent Callistus to Antium with a monthly allowance. When Zephyrinus became pope, Callistus was recalled and set over the cemetery belonging to the Church, not a private catacomb; it has ever since borne Callistus’s name. He obtained great influence over the ignorant, illiterate, and grasping Zephyrinus by bribes. We are not told how it came about that the runaway slave (now free by Roman law from his master, who had lost his rights when Callistus was condemned to penal servitude to the State) became archdeacon and then pope.
Döllinger and De Rossi have demolished this contemporary scandal. To begin with, Hippolytus does not say that Callistus by his own fault lost the money deposited with him. He evidently jumped from the vessel rather to escape than to commit suicide. That Carpophorus, a Christian, should commit a Christian slave to the horrible punishment of the pistrinum does not speak well for the master’s character. The intercession of the Christians for Callistus is in his favour. It is absurd to suppose that he courted death by attacking a synagogue; it is clear that he asked the Jewish money-lenders to repay what they owed him, and at some risk to himself. The declaration of Carpophorus that Callistus was no Christian was scandalous and untrue. Hippolytus himself shows that it was as a Christian that Callistus was sent to the mines, and therefore as a confessor, and that it was as a Christian that he was released. If Pope Victor granted Callistus a monthly pension, he need not suppose that he regretted his release. It is unlikely that Zephyrinus was ignorant and base. Callistus could hardly have raised himself so high without considerable talents, and the vindictive spirit exhibited by Hippolytus and his defective theology explain why Zephyrinus placed his confidence rather in Callistus than in the learned disciple of Irenaeus.
The orthodoxy of Callistus is challenged by both Hippolytus and Tertullian on the ground that in a famous edict he granted Communion after due penance to those who had committed adultery and fornication. It is clear that Callistus based his decree on the power of binding and loosing granted to Peter, to his successors, and to all in communion with them: “As to thy decision”, cries the Montanist Tertullian, “I ask, whence dost thou usurp this right of the Church? If it is because the Lord said to Peter: Upon this rock I will build My Church, I will give thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven’, or whatsoever though bindest or loosest on earth shall be bound or loosed in heaven’, that thou presumest that this power of binding and loosing has been handed down to thee also, that is to every Church in communion with Peter’s (ad omnem ecclesiam Petri propinquam, i.e. Petri ecclesiae propinquam), who art thou that destroyest and alterest the manifest intention of the Lord, who conferred this on Peter personally and alone?” (De Pudicitia, xxi.) The edict was an order to the whole Church (ib., i): “I hear that an edict has been published, and a peremptory one; the bishop of bishops, which means the Pontifex Maximus, proclaims: I remit the crimes of adultery and fornication to those who have done penance.” Doubtless Hippolytus and Tertullian were upholding a supposed custom of earlier times, and the pope in decreeing a relaxation was regarded as enacting a new law. On this point it is unnecessary to justify Callistus. Other complaints of Hippolytus are that Callistus did not put converts from heresy to public penance for sins committed outside the Church (this mildness was customary in St. Augustine’s time); that he had received into his “school” (i.e. The Catholic Church) those whom Hippolytus had excommunicated from “The Church” (i.e., his own sect); that he declared that a mortal sin was not (“always”, we may supply) a sufficient reason for deposing a bishop. Tertullian (De Exhort. Castitatis, vii) speaks with reprobation of bishops who had been married more than once, and Hippolytus charges Callistus with being the first to allow this, against St. Paul’s rule. But in the East marriages before baptism were not counted, and in any case the law is one from which the pope can dispense if necessity arise. Again Callistus allowed the lower clergy to marry, and permitted noble ladies to marry low persons and slaves, which by the Roman law was forbidden; he had thus given occasion for infanticide. Here again Callistus was rightly insisting on the distinction between the ecclesiastical law of marriage and the civil law, which later ages have always taught.. Hippolytus also declared that rebaptizing (of heretics) was performed first in Callistus’s day, but he does not state that Callistus was answerable for this. On the whole, then, it is clear that the Catholic church sides with Callistus against the schismatic Hippolytus and the heretic Tertullian. Not a word is said against the character of Callistus since his promotion, nor against the validity of his election.
Hippolytus, however, regards Callistus as a heretic. Now Hippolytus’s own Christology is most imperfect, and he tells us that Callistus accused him of Ditheism. It is not to be wondered at, then, if he calls Callistus the inventor of a kind of modified Sabellianism. In reality it is certain that Zephyrinus and Callistus condemned various Monarchians and Sabellius himself, as well as the opposite error of Hippolytus. This is enough to suggest that Callistus held the Catholic Faith. And in fact it cannot be denied that the Church of Rome must have held a Trinitarian doctrine not far from that taught by Callistus’s elder contemporary Tertullian and by his much younger contemporary Novatian–a doctrine which was not so explicitly taught in the greater part of the East for a long period afterwards. The accusations of Hippolytus speak for the sure tradition of the Roman Church and for its perfect orthodoxy and moderation. If we knew more of St. Callistus from Catholic sources, he would probably appear as one of the greatest of the popes.”
1914 Catholic Encyclopedia
The original author of this blog passed away in July of 2016. RIP Father Carota.